Friday, July 20, 2007

Mark Oppenheimer

Mark Oppenheimer is the coordinator of the Yale Journalism Initiative and the author of two books: Knocking on Heaven's Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture and Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America.

I recently asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I am about half-way through Foiglman, by the Israeli author Aharon Megged. He's not known as widely as compatriots like Amos Oz and David Grossman, but I'm completely captivated by this work, and somehow the awkward punctuation and poor copy-editing in this translation (from Toby Press, blessed be they), and the fact that my copy is a volume cast off by the public library of North Merrick, New York, work to enhance its effect. It's the story of an Israeli historian who allows into his life an eccentric Yiddish-speaking Frenchman who writes poems based on his experiences in concentration camps. Zvi, our narrator, has never had much use for poetry, but he is awakened to the genre by Foiglman's poems, which arrived out of the blue one day as a gift from the author himself, who had admired one of the narrator's historical tomes and wants to begin a correspondence. Eventually, Zvi agrees to find a translator to bring Foiglman's poems from Yiddish into Hebrew.

Nobody understands what Zvi sees in this old-world leftover, this poet of middling talents who speaks and writes in a dying language. The two men are in many ways antitheses: Hebrew vs. Yiddish, Israel vs. diaspora, professional scholar vs. luftmensch. And the poor fit between the men, who connect on the level of what can only be described as the Jewish soul, leads eventually to the tragic rending of a family. Many in Zvi's life would have him remainder Foiglman (much as the North Merrick library remaindered Foiglman).

I have always been drawn more to Yiddish than to Hebrew, and this novel, written by a man who came to Palestine when he was six and has lived in the Jewish state as long as there's been one, is unusually sensitive to pathos involved in the near-death of one language so that the other might be re-born. Other writers have shown a sensitivity to Yiddish as the conquered and now-barely-tolerated loser (most recently, Michael Chabon, in the splendid The Yiddish Policemen's Union), but Megged also writes with wondrous concision and insight about more mundane conflicts: between a steady husband and a volatile wife, for example, and between the Zionist father and the Jewishly indifferent, even hostile, son. This is a small, domestic novel that I'm sure will stay with me for a very long time. It makes me wish I could read Hebrew, so that I could know the author's mind a bit more truly.

I also just finished the Loeb Classics edition of the first two books of Cicero's On Oratory, which I read as research for a book I am writing about oratory in America. A friend had told me that his friend, a classicist, had deemed Cicero the most tiresome of the ancients, but I don't see it. The two dialogues are brisk and they're certainly wise; if only politicians today were given this book as required reading.
Mark Oppenheimer graduated from Yale College in 1996 and received a Ph.D. from Yale in American religion in 2003. In 2003, he was the Koret Young Writer on Jewish Themes at Stanford University; he has also taught at Wesleyan University and Hartford Seminary, and he has spoken at universities, synagogues, and churches throughout the country (he loves to talk). Oppenheimer's freelance writing has appeared in Harper's, The New York Times Magazine, The American Scholar, Slate, and elsewhere.

His article about a prominent acting coach who happens to be a Scientologist recently appeared in the New York Times Magazine, with related comments at The Huffington Post.

--Marshal Zeringue